Why on earth would anyone want to remake Straw Dogs? Sam Peckinpah’s original film released in 1971 is a provocative disconcerting examination of man’s basest impulses. Its violence a source of some controversy when it was released seems relatively tame by today’s standards; its core assertion – that we’re all capable of the most extreme barbarism if pushed far enough – still unnerves. But it was very much a product of its time borne out of the social unrest and political upheaval of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The appeal – commercial and otherwise – of a modernized re-telling would seem perilously limited.
In the new version director Rod Lurie (Resurrecting the Champ The Contender) partly refashions Straw Dogs as a ham-fisted allegory for the increasingly acrimonious red state/blue state divide. It is exceedingly clear which side he’s on.
James Marsden plays David Sumner a Hollywood screenwriter who moves with his actress wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) to her hometown of Blackwater Mississippi after her father’s death. Their stay is intended as only temporary long enough for them to prepare the family home for sale and for David to finish his latest screenplay about the siege of Stalingrad.
Blackwater presents more or less the prototypical (i.e. clichéd) Hollywood vision of a rural Deep South town populated with scruffy churlish yokels who instinctively recoil at anything resembling sophistication. Gun racks and confederate flags and “These Colors Don’t Run” bumper stickers abound. David with his vintage Jaguar credit cards and polysyllabic vocabulary incurs immediate resentment. David’s thinly-veiled condescension doesn’t help matters.
Everywhere he goes David is eyed with suspicion and made to feel unwelcome.
Hoping to ingratiate himself with the townsfolk he hires a local construction crew headed by Amy’s handsome ex-boyfriend Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) to repair a barn damaged during a recent storm. The men prove less-than-stellar workers drinking on the job leaving early to go hunting and brazenly treading about the house as if they own it. Equivocal by nature David is loath to confront them and Charlie and the boys seize on his timidity. Their provocations soon adopt a more sinister face.
Straw Dogs like its predecessor is built around a climactic final “siege” of the Sumner house when David surrounded on all sides by men intent on taking everything he has is finally driven to fight back. But whereas Pekinpah’s film filled the preceding minutes with scene after scene of troubling moral complexity Lurie’s version can only offer unremitting tedium. His Straw Dogs is more than anything else a terminal bore. At 110 minutes it is actually shorter than the original but it feels a good deal longer. Even a pivotal rape scene – in which the victim’s consent is ever-so-briefly implied – and some virtuoso scenery-chewing from James Woods playing an alcoholic ex-football coach can’t breathe much life into this empty mundane film.
Animation particularly when it comes out of the Disney/Pixar stable is one of those areas of filmmaking that regularly inspires the phrase "They don't make them like they used to." In the case of Toy Story 3 however it's more accurate to say "They have never made them like this." It's certainly not unheard of for an animated film to be good for a Pixar film to be great or for the third film in a trilogy to be outstanding (though that's the rarest of the three) but in the case of Lee Unkrich's film the sheer degree at which it exceeds at all three is not just rare it's unprecedented.
Eleven years have elapsed since Woody (Tom Hanks) Buzz (Tim Allen) and all of Andy's favorite playthings had their last adventure -- rather 11 years have elapsed since Andy stopped playing with his toys. Buoyed by Woody's never-failing devotion the gang is all optimistic that Andy will elect to bring them with him to his first year of college but as that fateful empty-nest day approaches it becomes clearer and clearer that the only toy that will be making the trek to school is Woody. The rest are all by a series of unfortunate events consigned to live out their remaining days at Sunnyside daycare. Things are actually looking up for the neglected entertainers until they realize just how careless the ankle-biters are when it comes to playing with toys.
Unfortunately there is no escape in sight for the lovable personalities Pixar has been refining for over a decade. Lotso Huggin' Bear (Ned Beatty) runs a tight ship at Sunnyside; the new toys are just going to have to be sacrificed to the aggressive toddlers so the old veterans can have a relaxing time with their more mature counterparts. Eventually Woody catches wind of what kind of life his old pals are being forced to live and Toy Story 3 quite brilliantly becomes a riff on classic prison escape movies as Woody seeks to breach Lotso's security measures and bring his bunch back to Andy where they belong. And while this on-the-run chunk of the film is some of the most thrilling material Pixar has ever delivered it's also some of the most touching.
Unlike most sequels not a moment of Toy Story 3 feels artificial. There's no sense that Pixar decided to make a third film because it knew that the box office would gladly support another entry; no sense that this is a cash grab (unlike a certain green ogre's most recent trip to the big screen). All of those typical sequel pitfalls are carefully avoided by a swelling sense of finality. Toy Story 3 isn't just another adventure with these characters -- there is in fact no doubt that this is their final adventure their final hoorah together. Director Lee Unkrich and screenwriter Michael Arndt meticulously lead the audience along with bated breath the entire time culminating in a life-or-death scenario for the toys that is more heartfelt and genuine than most live-action films can ever muster.
It's astonishing how the creative team at Pixar can make you forget that what you're watching is all a bunch of digital wizardry. Maybe it's the 3D this time around maybe it's that this is the studio's most accomplished technical feat to date (there are single shots at a landfill that pack in richer detail than the entirety of the pioneering first film) that makes Toy Story 3 such an immersive experience. Or maybe it's simply because Pixar treats its property which is ostensibly for children with the utmost sincerity. The result is an overwhelming success the rare kind of film that were it a human being would be your best friend.
One could reasonably make the case that Toy Story 3 is the single best animated film ever made. I wouldn't outright agree with such grandiose claims but it's certainly not a baseless proposition that you'd be laughed at for bringing up. However with part three now tucked under Pixar's belt one could present an even better case that Toy Story is the best film trilogy ever made -- a claim I am far more comfortable signing on the dotted line for.
We are first introduced to our bushy-haired redhead friend Napoleon (Jon Heder) in a vintage unicorn T-shirt dangling a superhero action figure out the window of his school bus. When his much younger friend asks "What are you going to do today Napoleon?" our protagonist's first words are marked with an attitude that is unmatched by anybody other than Napoleon himself "Whatever I feel like!" Napoleon and his chat room surfing brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) 31 with braces live with their biker grandma (Sandy Martin) until she's injured quad running at the dunes and Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) comes to babysit. Dynamite becomes the campaign manager for the class presidency of his best friend a new Mexican student named Pedro (Efren Ramirez) handing out key chains made by expert friendship bracelet-maker Deb (Tina Majorino). Dynamite also wins over the likes of Trisha (Emily Kennard) with a personal drawing of her that took forever he winsomely says "to finish the shading on her upper lip"; wears a vintage suit to his school dance; and injures his scrotum with a time machine purchased on the Internet. If this proud geek wasn't being kicked during class and pushed into lockers after he could just as easily be considered the coolest dork in town.
Jon Heder masters the coolness of weird and the awkwardness of youth through his social reject Napoleon Dynamite. Heder certainly has the open-mouthed squinty-eyed spectacle-clad doofus down to a T. From breaking an excessive sweat after practicing dance moves in his room to throwing fruit at his Uncle Rico to showing a pent-up rage while dancing for Pedro's candidacy speech Heder does every little thing with a resentful anger that makes his performance unforgettable and oh so laughable. As dazzling as he is alone Heder's act benefits when complemented by his equally outrageous costars. Ruell does a notable job portraying the fragility of his character Kip perfectly displaying the transition from computer geek to ghetto superstar thanks to new girlfriend LaFawnduh (Shondrella Avery). Gries is Uncle Rico--his constant nostalgic comments about his chance to "make State" in high school football in 1982 really start to get on your nerves. But Majorino takes the cake for the hilarity with which she depicts her character down to her hairstyles outfits jobs and hobbies. Her character Deb is eerily reminiscent of Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) from 1995's dork homage Welcome to the Dollhouse. One of the most attractive things about the movie is the organic love story that unfolds as Napoleon and Deb realize that they're in fact two peas in a pod.
Jared Hess directs Dynamite written by him and wife Jerusha. This movie is his baby as his only other directing and production credits include Peluca 2003's 9-minute short film focused on the character of Napoleon Dynamite then dubbed Seth. Without special effects or an expensive budget Dynamite will blow you away with its simple cinematography paralleled by the plain rural town in which the movie is set. Each of his characters has a specific quirky personality that they stay true to every minute on camera. Dynamite's Deb seems to look to Welcome to the Dollhouse's Dawn for fashion and boy advice. The two films are geek anthems that are both pathetic and inspiring at the same time. Just as Dollhouse reached its peak with a fuming Dawn marching over to her male obsession and releasing her rage over years of being unaccepted Dynamite reaches a whole new peak with the curiously angry Napoleon putting on an emotional dance performance in front of his victim of choice--the entire student body class.